12 Questions: John McEnteer

By Sarah Stuart

John McEnteer with the portrait of his great-great aunt Pare Watene, as painted in  1878 by Gottfried Lindauer.  Photo / Brett Phibbs
John McEnteer with the portrait of his great-great aunt Pare Watene, as painted in 1878 by Gottfried Lindauer. Photo / Brett Phibbs

One of the subjects of a remarkable new Maori TV series on the descendants of those painted by Gottfried Lindauer is businessman, Treaty negotiator and new chief of Auckland Council's Southern Initiative John McEnteer.

1. Do you come to the Auckland Art Gallery often to visit Pare Watene, your great-great aunt?

Yes quite often - it's such an iconic painting and when I stand in front of it I see the taonga of our family. I am the kaitiaki (guardian) of her korowai (the cloak she wears) which was one of the first to combine traditional harakeke (flax) with the wool from the English. We have the patu pounamu in the family and her heitiki, although that is not with us anymore.

2. Where is the tiki?

It was stolen from a handbag my cousin put down in a bathroom in San Francisco some years ago. Someone took it from her bag. She was devastated - it took her many years to tell me what had happened as she carried it with her always.

But I believe it will be returned to us one day.

3.There is a powerful moment in the series Behind the Brush, where you cry talking about the tiki. You also seem very emotional discussing your iwi's loss of land during Pare's time.

It's very hard to put it into words the sense of sadness and loss, not just for what we had but for the loss of opportunity that went when our land was taken.

We went from having 100 per cent of the Hauraki district in 1860s to just 2.5 per cent by the late 1990s and even that is mostly just little bits and pieces of land here and there.

That has had huge economic repercussions for us.

Pare was painted just at the time that the land loss was happening and our people were dying from European diseases. It's a very romanticised painting of what her life was really like.

4. Did you grow up knowing about your history?

I remember going as a young child to my grandmother's house in Thames and seeing all the greenstone and other taonga and wondering how come if we had so much land our grandmother was now living in a tiny little falling-down house?

5. Is that how you became politicised?

We always talked about the land in my family but not really. I was a long-haired hippie at university in the 1970s and for me it was an awakening around a lot of issues - protesting the Vietnam War, French nuclear testing. I was arrested on the Springbok tour at the same time as my father was on the other side watching the game. And I lived with a feminist for a while. We were billeted all over the US by radical feminists.

6. So land issues came later?

It was really the kaumatua who asked me to come back to work on our Treaty claim, because they wanted to use my corporate experience.

7. You don't look like a radical Maori activist?

The kaumatua say "John, you were born under the moonlight". I've always been fair - Pare was fair for her time too - and I sometimes walk into protests or places where people expect someone with a big moko and it's just me. But I've walked in two worlds all my life and my heart rests with the whenua (land). What I say isn't radically different from the radicals.

8. Lindauer has been criticised for painting what he thought was a dying race, and for changing moko and other elements. What's your view of this Czech who painted Maori?

I think the paintings are such a treasure for the people of Auckland but it's very hard to find them in the redeveloped gallery. I came when it reopened and I had to search for my ancestors. They were shoved right down the back and seem a bit marginalised where they are.

9. Your generation has had the responsibility of righting the wrongs through the Treaty process. Is it a burden?

It's a big responsibility. I've had to be involved in land occupations (in Whenuakite in 2007) and issues where you've really had to stand up for what you believe in. I do get angry and I get impatient.

10. You were a founding director of Mighty River Power - will you buy shares?

I think that in the long term it's a good investment but that's really for the iwi to decide. I don't think it should be sold - these infrastructure resources should be kept for New Zealanders.

11. Your new job is developing a 30-year plan to lift housing, employment, transport and social conditions for kids and families in South Auckland. Bit of a big ask?

My wife's a Samoan paediatrician at Middlemore Hospital. I know there are a lot of desperate circumstances in South Auckland but there are also a lot of really good things happening and I'm there to help build on the positive things. There's no pathway to doing that but I want to work where it's about changing society for the better.

12. Is there a spiritual element to what you do?

I dream on the issues sometimes and things come to you. You get an idea and it's the key that unlocks everything or the answer to a vexing problem. Yes I believe there are spirits and they speak to you. I've had dreams and visions, too many for it not to be something real.

Behind the Brush begins on Maori TV, Tuesday, March 19, at 8pm.

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